Is it time for China to play soccer, not just watch?

Allison Zhu
China already has a love for watching football. The next step is a love for playing football.
Allison Zhu

To the surprise of many World Cup fans, Iceland tied Argentina in the group stage, before 19-year-old French star Mbappé sent Messi home.

What’s their secret?

China has a population of about 1.4 billion. Iceland has over 330,000. In 2011, China had 8,000 registered players; Iceland had more than 20,000, according to the China Football Association. Statistically, this makes no sense — why did Iceland make the cut and not China?

But if you compare each country’s approach to youth football development, you would find it less surprising.

Recently, when I stepped onto Century Park’s turf field, ready to practice, the park’s guard ran over to kick me out, saying the pitch was restricted. In much of urban China, fields are locked, urban space is dominated by highrises, and teams, especially women’s teams, are short of players.

Iceland has one pitch per 1,800 people. By comparison, Guangzhou has one pitch per 95,000. Iceland also has a youth development program that promotes training at home or abroad. Midfielder Gylfi Sigurðsson and captain Aron Gunnarsson are both products of this system.

French star Kylian Mbappé, too, was shaped by his country’s program to develop young talent, coming out of Clairefontaine, one of France’s best academies. So the secret to success? Grassroots development.

This is found in countries outside Europe too — like Japan, the only Asian team to advance to the Round of 16. From the Empress’ Cup to the Emperor’s Cup, high school to senior football leagues, Japan provides competitions for all footballers.

Japan has cultivated a football culture and broadened the selection pool for its professional teams by establishing competitive and accessible leagues. The country now has 964,328 registered players, and the All Japan High School Football Tournament has produced many talents, including 2018 World Cup players Naomichi Ueda and Gaku Shibasaki.

China is also moving along. But although China invests heavily in specialized programs or foreign recruits, the number of registered players will remain low if most of Chinese youngsters don’t play.

The problem is the line dividing people who watch football and people who play football. For the past few weeks, World Cup viewing areas in Shanghai have been packed with fans.

Despite not having a team in the Cup, China makes up the largest number of spectators. But walk around the streets of Shanghai and ask parents if they want their children playing on a football team, most will probably say no.

In many football-playing countries, the sport is popular with players from impoverished families. It’s their main recreational activity or path to a better future. But in China, academic studies are regarded by nearly all families as more important than sport.

I started playing competitive football at age eight in the States, and continued throughout secondary school. Many of my teammates are now playing in college. But even for them, football is a hobby, not a profession.

A form of recreation, the sport kept us socially and physically active in an environment outside the classroom. I remember one week of final exams a teammate texted: “It’s nice outside, anyone up for some soccer?”

A group of us saw the text, put our textbooks down, and headed outside to take a break and play the game.

To cultivate a sports culture where one does not exist, there cannot be a conflict between school and the game.

Participation in sports, such as football, should be mandatory in schools: the more who learn football, the more who know how to play football, the more who will be good at football. If China can develop competitive leagues as inclusive and widely-followed as Japan’s, perhaps Japan will no longer be the only Asian country making the next Round of 16.

China already has a love for watching football. The next step is a love for playing football.

The author is an intern with Shanghai Daily.

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